When Canadian model Elly Mayday was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, it wasn’t the end of her modelling career. Far from it. In fact, Mayday used her modelling career as a platform, courageously sharing her experience with cancer as she battled the disease.
Mayday passed away on March 1st this year. In remembering her story, we have an opportunity to draw attention to ovarian cancer – a disease projected to kill 254,000 women a year by 2035.
“Nusrat, a single mother of two from Mumbai whose mother and sister both died of ovarian cancer…was not offered information and testing for the disease. She only received a diagnosis of cancer after seeing a doctor for abnormal bleeding. A scan led to a diagnosis of advanced ovarian cancer”
India accounts for the second highest number of women living with ovarian cancer worldwide, behind China. Yet access to treatment is a struggle.
The World Ovarian Cancer Coalition (WOCC) highlighted the story of Nusrat, a single mother of two from Mumbai whose mother and sister both died of ovarian cancer. Despite this, she was not offered information and testing for the disease. She only received a diagnosis of cancer after seeing a doctor for abnormal bleeding. A scan led to a diagnosis of advanced ovarian cancer.
The WOCC also wrote about Anuja, who lived with ovarian cancer for five years. Yet her quality of life deteriorated because of what her husband Anand believed to be disinterest by professionals. “Had they spotted the signs, it might have made a difference,” he said. “She started on a losing wicket.”
After the diagnosis, he continued, “her life was already over. There was no concept of care, only of cure. For them it was a question of victory or defeat, and once they realised they were on the losing side, they quit. They seemed to forget there was a human involved and that is very hard for a carer to see.”
“It is the shame and stigma attached to the physical effects of ovarian cancer Elly Mayday sought to shatter”
For ovarian cancer sufferers and survivors, stigma means that support is difficult to access. As the disease is gender-related, there is much shame attached to it. “With women’s cancers, the sense of shame is more because it is related to reproductive health, and in case of breast cancer, accepted standards of feminine beauty,” an ovarian cancer survivor wrote in Livemint. The author connected with a fellow survivor – actress Manisha Koirala. Her words of wisdom were “You may never get your old body back. Understand what your new body likes, be gentle with it.”
It is the shame and stigma attached to the physical effects of ovarian cancer Elly Mayday sought to shatter.
“The chemotherapy left Mayday bald; the operations left her with scars. Far from concealing them in her modelling, she embraced them.”
When she sought medical attention with pain so intense she went to the emergency room four times, doctors prescribed painkillers and said it could be down to her weight. Mayday had a reputation as a plus-size model and followed doctors’ instructions to exercise more, but this did little to alleviate her pain. Eventually, a CT scan revealed an ovarian cyst – and a biopsy revealed it to be a rare form of ovarian cancer called low-grade serious carcinoma.
Chemotherapy and multiple surgeries followed, including a hysterectomy and a nine-hour operation to remove tumours. The chemotherapy left Mayday bald; the operations left her with scars. Far from concealing them in her modelling, she embraced them. In her pictures, she did not cover up her bald head and her scars were visible. She referred to them publicly as beauty marks.
Told she was cancer-free in 2014, she continued to show the marks of her disease. As well as her professional modelling, she posted photos to Facebook and Instagram – doing her utmost to battle the shame attached to women with ovarian cancer.
“”My idea of myself and what women are supposed to feel towards their bodies has changed and evolved into something stronger,” Mayday proclaimed, decrying the notion that her disease was cause for shame.”
In 2015, Elly Mayday’s cancer returned. Devastated by the news, she vowed to continue fighting and she continued to model her scars as she underwent further surgeries, which were never retouched in her modelling.
“My idea of myself and what women are supposed to feel towards their bodies has changed and evolved into something stronger,” Mayday proclaimed, decrying the notion that her disease was cause for shame. “My confidence has made me where I am today.”
Her treatments for cancer left her unable to have children. Even though she wanted children, Mayday said “I’ve always understood motherhood as someone who takes care of others—and I know that I can do that without having to give birth.”Through her advocacy, that’s what she sought to do.
“I need to take care of the young girls that need me or need this voice. That’s my way of parenting for now,” she commented.
In the final months of her life, Mayday’s cancer progressed to the point doctors could no longer help her. She passed away on March 1st this year.
Mayday’s passing leaves a void in the global conversation about cancer and women’s health, but her legacy lives on in the words of encouragement and support and the strength with which she bared herself – physically and emotionally – as she fought for her life. In India, where many women bear the shame of their health issues, Elly Mayday’s message is of vital importance.